August 20, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Foraging berries is one of many underappreciated outdoor activities that Nebraska offers. Putting one’s kids to work on a ripe berry bush with a couple of pails will give them an opportunity to appreciate the natural world. 

Finding berries to pick is not difficult. Berry farms are plentiful in the state, and even roadside ditches offer opportunities to pick berries for those who know what to look for. Elderberries—for example—are plentiful, often seen, and often overlooked.

Paul Read, a professor of horticulture and viticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who grows elderberries, says they are a native small fruit in the genus Sambucus. The common American elder shrub, Sambucus canadensis, has a semi-woody stem from which foliage and a “cyme” (a type of flower cluster or “inflorescence”) grows. The semi-woody stem contains a soft, white pith at its center. “When I was a kid, we used to remove it [the pith] and make whistles,” Read says. The stem can support a shrub 12 or more feet in height. 

The small, sweet-smelling white flowers are “umbrella-shaped.” The cyme contains many small flowers that develop into deep-red to black individual fruits, which are no bigger than a quarter inch in diameter. In midsummer, the odds are that anyone driving around the countryside could find elderberries in bloom on roadsides and in ditch banks. In the fall, the clusters of dark fruit weighing down the plants give them away. 

Elderberries make fine jellies, jams, pies, and wines. The flowers can also be made into wine. Aside from tasting good, elderberries are healthy. Read says that elderberries have many of the beneficial characteristics generally expected of fruits and vegetables. In addition, he adds, elderberries are one of the fruits highest in antioxidant content. Elderberry products, such as concentrated juices, have found their way into the health food market. 

Read does not forage elderberries because he has a cultivated “Adams” elderberry growing in his garden. He says there are other “cultivars” (varieties) available including “York” and “Nova.” However, foraged elderberries will be pretty similar to cultivars. 

“Birds love them both,” he says. Foragers should expect to compete with birds for perfectly ripe berries. When cultivating, throwing a net over the plants will help keep the birds out.

Elderberries are easy to incorporate into the home garden. Read recommends spacing elderberry plants out in a field and cutting them back each year so the height is uniform. 

Whether homegrown or foraged, harvest elderberries when they are very dark in order to benefit from the increased antioxidant content and enhanced flavors. He adds that they are not difficult to grow or harvest, and most commercial elderberries are harvested by hand.

Consuming the fruits of your forage will connect you to the source. You will know the environment. You will know your environment. In the cold sterile aisle of the grocery store, it is easy to forget: Nourishment comes from the earth.


This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of OmahaHome. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.